10 June. We’re still on the train to Yekaterinburg and there’s about 5 more hours to go. The kids in the lower berths are reading and making bracelets. They’re going straight to Krasnoyarsk, so it’ll be another 3 days for them to arrive. They’re actually really well-behaved, I mean, if it were Italian kids it would be an absolute nightmare. One of them even offers me a candy.
I’m quite curious about Yekaterinburg, although somehow I know it won’t be as amazing as these past few days we spent with Natalie in Nizhny and her village. There really are no words to describe how thankful I am to her and how great and heartwarming our stay was. It’s true that when you travel to a place and get to hang out with locals it is a completely different experience. It is perhaps the only way for you to get a real vibe of that place.
We finally make it to our destination and it’s freaking cold here. We arrive at 5 PM local time / 3 PM Moscow time (yeah, long story… Apparently the Russian railway system always refers to the Moscow time on the tickets, which, given the fact that there’s shitloads of time frames in Russia, can get quite confusing to say the least). In fact, we almost missed our stop as we both fell asleep and the babushka from the lower berth had to wake me up like: Weren’t you supposed to get off in Yekaterinburg? – Shit!
We gathered our stuff in a rush (I left the fish Natalie gave us as a present.. well, it was starting to smell what can I say) and hopped off the wagon.
As soon as I get on the platform, my body starts shaking in the cold and rain. Great. Nice to me you, Yekaterinburg.
I have my little hand-drawn map to get to the hostel, so we take the metro at Ural’skaya and get off at Geologicheskaya. Our address is Radisheva 33. However, once we get there, we realize that that is just the number of the dom, which is actually huge. So we end up going round and round for about an hour, no sign whatsoever of a Hostel Dostoevsky. We’re almost giving up hope, till a Russian man, carrying his daughter in his arms, approaches us and kindly asks: Are you looking for something? Do you need help? – And smiles.
So I explain the situation and he nicely offers to call the hostel for us. Once he gets the right directions he even offers to escort us there. The nicest guy ever. I just want to hug him. So no, Russians are not all aggressive assholes.
We get to the hostel and decide to rest for a while. In the meantime, Solene messages me and we set up to meet around 9:30 PM and go for drinks.
We end up at this Doctor Scotch pub, one of those suggested by Lonely Planet, but after a while we decide to move on to a new bar as this is way too expensive for our budget.
While we walk down the streets, it’s not that we have a good or bad first impression about the city, although it is probably mostly bad, surely puzzling cause really there is no city centre in Yekaterinburg, no central hub, every area looks pretty much the same, a.k.a. a huge outer kol’tso quarter of Moscow.
Anyway, we walk for about 10-15 minutes till we bump into this Shtab bar, illuminated by a massive red neon star. That’s our place. We immediately know it. It definitely looks cheap enough and fucked up enough.
And it is. Inside there’s this whole WW2 theme going on, camouflage curtains, pictures of the siege of Berlin, snipers hanging on the walls and a soldier’s statue standing at the entrance to greet you. Sweet.
We have a few many drinks, start to play Never Have I Ever till Jean-Yves gets too drunk, as always, and we decide to get home. It’s about 3 AM and as Gian and I walk back to our hostel in the freezing cold, me wrapped in my Air India blanket, the sky is already light. Yeah, there’s this little something about Russian summers, with the sun going down after 10 PM and rising back up at 3 AM, that is really cool and disturbing at the same time. I’d probably never get used to it.
11 June. We are supposed to meet Jean-Yves and Solene at 12 PM at Dinamo metro station so we can visit the city together. As we find each other, we start walking in the direction of the golden domes of some churches in the distance, right across some sort of park.
We get to the site where the Romanov family was assassinated in 1918 and it’s honestly quite underwhelming. It’s basically just a cross with the statues of the royal members around it. Ou-kay.
We enter the church of the Spilled Blood or whatever and I have to say that’s really probably one of the few things worth seeing in Yekaterinburg. It’s the typical orthodox church, with golden icons everywhere and golden everything. Then on one side we see the tombstones of the tsars, Nikolay II and his wife and children, including the legendary Anastasia. In one of the semi-hidden hallways behind the main chapel, we also get to see a photo exhibition about the tsars and their relationship with God, nature and Russia.
It is actually impressive to see these photos and read the letters of Nikolay II and his children, cause they immediately make you realize how deeply attached they still were to God, to the divine mission that he invested them with: to protect Russia and its people at all cost. Their relationship with nature and land was also quite profound and somehow primitive, as one can tell from the photos of the princesses dressed as farm girls and working the land in Tsarskoe Selo.
The events of the Russian Revolution would easily evoke images of oppressive monarchs that needed to be punished and eliminated so that the people could finally get their freedom, but actually what I get from this exhibition is really the image of loving and caring monarchs, who just fell victims of their time and whose memory got clouded by some sort of damnatio memoriae for the whole duration of the Soviet regime, only to be rehabilitated in the past few years.
“When I become Tsar, there will be no poor or unhappy people. When I become Tsar, I want everyone to be happy” – These are the words of prince Nikolay III.
Also, ever noticed that Medvedev looks EXACTLY like Nikolay II?
Anyways, as I said, this is pretty much the highlight of the day, and we spend the rest of it mostly walking aimlessly in search of something worth visiting. Except from random graffiti mocking Obama and the US. Literally. Everywhere.
We end up in a 70th Anniversary of the Great Victory Museum, then pass by the so-called Literary Quarter, which is basically just a wooden house, yes, one, walk on the river “bank” until we decide, what the hell, let’s just go eat.
We find a cheap Georgian restaurant near the 1905 square and stay there till about 3 PM, when we decide to go look for this panorama place suggested by Lonely Planet. Apparently you get to see the whole city from up there.
So we climb on top of the Visotskiy, a 53-storey buiding, all excited to see the Ural mountains, till we realize, there are no mountains whatsoever in sight. What! Are the Urals a lie?
We will later find out that the mountains actually exist, but they stop right before Yekaterinburg and start again right after it. Well, that’s great, Yekaterinburg.
At around 5 PM, we figure it’s a respectable time to head back to our hostels and chill. Gian and I stop at a produtky to buy some stuff for dinner and when we get back to our place, we find Marta waiting for us, jumping toward us and hugging us. She has just flown in from Moscow. Now the trio is finally complete.
We cook some pasta, have some beer, only to later find out that it’s forbidden to drink in the hostel, but hey, we didn’t know. Then, we head toward Shtab bar to meet Solene and Jean-Yves. We actually find them already drinking pints of beer. And downhill from here, we just keep the booze coming, chilling, playing Never Have I Ever, again, and just having a good time.
June 12. Today’s plan is: go see the famous Europe-Asia border Monument (although we did find out last night from the bartender that technically we already are in Asia). Still, we read that the monument lays where Tsar Aleksandr II stopped in 18something and opened a bottle of wine, so we figure it might be a cool thing to do. Especially considering that there is literally nothing else really worth seeing in the city.
We head to Ural’skaya metro station and exit at the Severnyi avtovokzal, where we buy our ride to Pervoural’sk, for just about 80 Rubles. I ask the bus lady what we need to do to reach the monument and her eyes brighten up and smile, as she merrily tries to explain that she’ll tell the driver to stop where we need to, and then we’ll have to walk through a small path in the woods till we reach the monument.
We sit in the back and drive away from the city. Soon the countryside begins, tall pine trees on both sides of the road, nothing else in sight in front of us or behind us.
That’s the thing about Russia, it is so big and wide, the breadth of its space is almost intimidating. Each oblast’ has its capital city, which is really the only city in the whole region, isolated, nothing around it but woods and small derevn’i, which all look like they’re stuck in time. There’s something about the wideness of Russia, the fact that there is so much space left to itself, untouched, that conveys awe and desolation at the same time.
Suddenly, the driver waves at us and we figure we have to get off. We are in the middle of nowhere, but we can see a small path leading to the woods, just like the lady told us at the station. We start walking, a thousand mosquitos attacking us, till we reach a cemented road and right across it we can see the border monument.
Of course, it’s under renovation, cause that’s just our luck. Well, at least we get to breathe some fresh air and admire the mightiness of the Russian forest. We take some pictures and then spot a sign indicating: Pervoural’sk – 1 Km. Since there’s nothing else to do, we decide to just go to this village and check it out.
So we start walking on the side of the road and almost feels like a movie. It’s hard to explain the feeling of just walking on a straight road in the middle of nowhere toward an unknown location.
At some point, the road crosses with another one and we spot the sign: Pervoural’sk, along with a charming Gazprom gas station. The smell of gas pervades the atmosphere. Wow. This is it. A bunch of wooden houses along one road and desolation all around. I feel like I’m in a Jack Kerouac book.
We enter a cafe, most likely the only one in the whole village and which apparently operates as a restaurant, banquet room, wedding reception facility and god knows what else. It’s also probably one of the kitschest places I’ve ever been. Christmas lights are illuminating the counter, long red velvet drapes frame the windows, rose and golden cloths cover tables and chairs, in turn wrapped in yellow bows on the side. Also, birthday balloons are floating on the ceiling, as middle-aged men sit alone on scattered tables, having lunch.
We order some bliny and soup and just enjoy the surreality of the situation. We also realize we have to find our way back to Yekaterinburg. I read that basically we should stand on the opposite side of the road until a bus or marshutka passes by and picks us up. Fantastic.
Okay, let’s try this. As we wait, cars passing us by and no sign of any bus, Jean-Yves calls Gian asking where we are and suddenly appears with Solene, walking towards us. In Pervoural’sk. What? They tell us that they also took the bus to see the monument, but as they didn’t ask the driver to stop there, they ended up on the other edge of Pervoural’sk. As they walk toward us, a bus suddenly appears, so they start running and we all manage to get in, for another 40 minute drive back to Yekaterinburg. Pervoural’sk, it’s been real.
Back at the station, we say bye to the guys, who we are going to meet again in Irkutsk. They’re going there directly tonight, with 3-day train ride.
We go back to the hostel, pick up our bags and on to the station once again. This time direction: Omsk.